Chinese drugmaker fights counterfeiting in Africa with SMS technology

China has often been maligned in Africa as the source of counterfeit drugs, a reputation that the government is not at all happy about. Chinese authorities this year even took the unusual step of defending their country against a report in a U.K. newspaper that it was a primary source of fake antimalarial drugs in Uganda and Tanzania. But one Chinese company is taking steps to distinguish itself as a source of safe products there.

Guilin Pharmaceuticals has signed on with the mPedigree Network in West Africa to use SMS texting technology so that consumers can verify that the drugs they purchase are authentic. Guilin manufactures the antimalarial drug artesun, which has been prequalified by the World Health Organization (WHO). The drugs will now include labeling that can be scratched off to reveal a unique code which consumers can text to mPedigree and then receive a confirmation text that says whether the product is genuine.

The technology is not new to the continent, but mPedigree founder Bright Simons tells the Financial Times that it's critical to get Chinese companies to adopt it. "We haven't until now had a lot of cooperation from Chinese manufacturers, and we had been getting worried because you are not going to make a lot of progress if you are not getting them on board," Simons said. Getting Guilin on board should encourage other Chinese drugmakers to buy in. "Given how quickly China is building a market-share in the global south pharmaceutical trade, this could represent a seismic shift in the fake medicines situation," Simons said.

The technology is spreading in Africa, where mobile phones are far more prevalent than computers. Cambridge, MA-based Sproxil has signed on with some of the bigger drugmakers, like Merck ($MRK) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), to use its SMS anticounterfeiting system in Africa.

China and India are generally believed to be the sources of the majority of counterfeit drugs circulating in the world, a reputation China is trying to overcome. Chinese officials earlier this year rejected as false a story by the U.K.'s The Guardian that said up to a third of antimalarial drugs in Uganda and Tanzania may be fake or substandard, and that the majority of them are manufactured in China and India. China appears to be making a more concerted effort to try to stamp out the problem, which also affects its own consumers. Just last week, a report said authorities had arrested dozens of suspects and seized tens of millions of counterfeit tablets that were being sold to villagers in China.

- read the Financial Times story (reg. req.)

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